With high housing demand and rising real estate costs, homelessness weighs heavily on cities throughout California. Yet in West Sacramento, California, officials have found a digital solution that may alleviate some of the burden.
In a partnership with smart city startup Appledore, West Sacramento has become a testing ground for a new mapping and analytics platform called Outreach Grid. The tool plots locations of homeless camps for case workers, notes the needs of individuals in the camps and merges homelessness data into a single repository so it can be shared across agencies. The City of West Sacramento views Outreach Grid as a wider lens in its battle against homelessness.
“With Outreach Grid, staff can track the camps, the patterns of how the camps move over time and who was in what camp and when, so I know it’s been really useful from a planning perspective already,” said Jon Robinson, West Sacramento’s deputy city manager.
The tool was first developed in 2016 through San Francisco’s Startup in Residence (STiR), an initiative that has grown into a national program for tech startups and cities to co-create solutions. While there are many tools that might provide similar features, Robinson said he didn’t know of any in the marketplace that offered a comprehensive management solution for homelessness like Outreach Grid.
“Ultimately, this software has the potential to give us the capability to actually go out and sign people up for the services that they need without requiring them to make an appointment and go down to the county, which can be a really big deal,” Robinson said. “It’s definitely a unique solution.”
The city is still working to develop a sign-up feature to register homeless residents for city and county services, but Robinson said staff need to investigate privacy requirements first.
Tiffany Pang, co-founder of Appledore along with John Cadengo, said the platform is a decision making tool to enable greater accuracy when counting homeless residents, knowing their whereabouts and understanding their needs. Pang said these details can affect the care given to veterans, determine resource gaps, and provide data that could qualify cities and counties for greater support from federal agencies and philanthropies.
“This information translates into funding decisions, how they apply for grants at the federal level, and it translates to how many shelters that localities need to build to service these folks,” Pang said.
Outreach Grid’s mobile app and analytics dashboard also eliminates a host of manual tasks. Before Applerdore’s partnership, Pang said West Sacramento had to do the mapping work by hand, penciling in camp locations, scribbling paper notes and tabulating homeless estimations with calculators.
“Now they can do all of this online and it’s all in a single database that they share with other people they work with and other outreach workers,” Pang said.
Appledore has plans to launch Outreach Grid in Davis, California, soon and Pang said her team is in talks with additional cities that are considering the tool. Pricing ranges depending on the size of the city and the number of administrators using the platform. On its site, Appledore says it offers a free version of the software with minimal features or paid subscriptions that range from $220 to $300 per month for each administrator.
In the field, West Sacramento Outreach Coordinator Mark Sawyer said Outreach Grid has been invaluable for its ability to flesh out pain points in the city and deliver a bird’s eye view. Local law enforcement don’t use the the app to push homeless residents out of camps unnecessarily, but Sawyer said there are times when relocation is required.
“There may be an area where a camp is having a detrimental affect on the local community. For example, if it’s on private property, if it’s on a property that is being redeveloped, or if a camp is halting business activity,” Sawyer said. “During times like this the app is a good tool to see which camps need to be addressed first.”
Sawyer said common services requested by homeless people are appointments for services referral screenings — a process that could be expedited if the city builds out Outreach Grid’s service intake features. Other common demands are for motel vouchers, supplemental nutrition services, mental health care and drug rehabilitation.
Sawyer said the app is also beneficial in relaying information from the field to leadership and administrators in departments.
“I’m on the ground at a micro-level, so for the most part I know where the camps are,” Sawyer said. “But this tool is very helpful to explain the situation to people who are a couple of levels removed from it. This could be the city council, lieutenants, or people who aren’t on the ground but have an interest in understanding the situation.”